The UK currently has twenty one F-35B Lightning aircraft (as of November 2020) as well as Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in South Carolina, and also Edwards Air Force Base in California which is presently home to 17 Reserve Squadron OCU performing operational test and evaluation.
First batch of RAF F-35B Lightnings land at RAF Marham - June 2018
It was expected that four UK F-35B Lightning aircraft would transit from MCAS Beaufort to RAF Marham on Tuesday 5th June 2018, although due to the weather conditions it was decided that they would cross the Atlantic on Wednesday 6th June 2018. The four aircraft (ZM145, ZM146, ZM147 and ZM148) were supported across the Atlantic by RAF Voyager tankers as well as an A400M Atlas transporter which was carrying spares, support equipment and engineers in case any F-35s had a problem and were diverted to land.
Second batch of RAF F-35B Lightnings land at RAF Marham - August 2018
Another five F-35B Lightning aircraft (ZM140, ZM141, ZM142, ZM143 & ZM144) crossed the Atlantic and landed at RAF Marham on Friday 3rd August 2018 at about 9.30pm. The F-35s were met by a Tornado GR4 over Land's End, Cornwall which escorted them to RAF Marham in Norfolk. This brings the total number of F-35 Lightnings, at RAF Marham, to nine aircraft.
Third batch of F-35B Lightnings land at RAF Marham - July 2019
Six more UK F-35B Lightning aircraft (ZM137, ZM139, ZM149, ZM150, ZM151, ZM152) crossed the Atlantic and landed at RAF Marham on the evening of Tuesday 16th July 2019. These six aircraft belong to 207 (OCU) Squadron and will be based at RAF Marham where they will train Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots. The role of an operational conversion unit (OCU) is to teach pilots how to fly the aircraft and which tactics best exploit the performance of their aircraft and its weapons.
Fourth batch of F-35B Lightnings land at RAF Marham - November 2020
Three more UK F-35B Lightning aircraft (ZM153, ZM154, ZM155) crossed the Atlantic and landed at RAF Marham on the evening of Monday 30th November 2020.
Fifth batch of F-35B Lightnings land at RAF Marham - October 2021
Three more UK F-35B Lightning aircraft (ZM156, ZM157, ZM158) landed at RAF Marham on the evening of Thursday 28th October 2021.
Sixth batch of F-35B Lightnings arrived at RAF Marham - 3 March 2022
Three more UK F-35B Lightning aircraft (ZM159, ZM160, ZM161) arrived at RAF Marham on Thursday 3rd March 2022 at about 3pm.
RAF Marham retired it last two Squadrons of Tornado GR4s (IX Sqn & 31 Sqn) in March 2019 and has completed significant infrastructure to support the new F-35B Lightning aircraft. This includes a national operating centre which is the headquarters for the Lightning Force, a maintenance and finishing facility with an eight-bay hangar for engineering maintenance purposes, and an integrated training centre, which will house four full mission simulators and ground crew training facilities. The runways and taxiways have also been refurbished along with three new vertical landing pads using special high-temperature resistant concrete.
Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers
As well as the F-35B Lightnings operating from RAF Marham, they will also operate from the two new Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers. HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail to the United States for F-35 Lightnings trials in Autumn 2018. More information about the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers can be found here.
Initial operational capability for the F-35B was declared in January 2019 for land-based operations and the Lightning is also to be progressively cleared for use from the Royal Navy's two aircraft carriers by late 2020.
F-35 Lightning aircraft
The fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multi-role combat aircraft. They have been designed to perform ground attack and air superiority missions. This sophisticated aircraft has advanced avionics, sensors, displays and communication systems that collect and share data with the pilot and other friendly forces which provides unmatched situational awareness.
There are three variants including:
• Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning:
A conventional take off and landing variant.
• Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning:
A short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant.
• Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning:
A carrier-based CATOBAR variant.
The F-35A is intended for the United States Air Force (USAF) and other air forces around the world. The F-35B will be operated by the United Stated Marines Corps (USMC) and the Royal Air Force / Royal Navy. The UK's new Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers will operate the F-35B variant. The United States Navy (USN) as well as the United Stated Marines Corps will operate the F-35C on the USN aircraft carriers.
617 Squadron history
617 Squadron has operated the following aircraft throughout its history:- Avro Lancaster, Avro Lincoln, English Electric Canberra, Avro Vulcan and Panavia Tornado GR1/GR4. However, the squadron is most famous for its use of Lancaster bombers during Operation Chastise, against German dams, in the Second World War. This is why 617 Squadron is nicknamed 'The Dambusters', and has the motto 'Apres moi le deluge' which is French for 'After me, the flood'.
The squadron was formed in secret at RAF Scampton in March 1943, for the specific task of attacking three dams (Mohne, Eder and Sorpe) that provided water and power to the Ruhr industrial region of Germany.
Using 'bouncing bombs', designed by Barnes Wallis, they undertook low-level training over the dams of the Upper Derwent Valley, in Derbyshire, before attacking the actual dams, on the 16th-17th May 1943. Both the Mohne and Eder dams were breached but the Sorpe remained intact. Although the impact on industrial production was limited, the raid gave a significant morale boost to the people of Britain.
Nineteen Lancasters took part in the raid with 133 aircrew, but eight planes were lost with the loss of fifty three crew and three men survived to become prisoners of war. On the ground, almost 1,300 people were killed in the resulting flooding. The Wing Commander, Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the raid.
UK F-35B Lightning Squadrons
The F-35B Lightnings are pooled between 617 squadron and 207(OCU) Squadron at RAF Marham. 17 Reserve Squadron is based at Edwards AFB in the USA with 3 aircraft (ZM135, ZM136 & ZM138) which are used for operational test and evaluation. 809 Naval Air Squadron will follow in 2023.
Current UK F-35B Lightning Aircraft (as of March 2022)
• BK-01 - ZM135 - 17 Sqn - Test & Evaluation (Edwards AFB)
• BK-02 - ZM136 - 17 Sqn - Test & Evaluation (Edwards AFB)
• BK-03 - ZM137 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-04 - ZM138 - 17 Sqn - Test & Evaluation (Edwards AFB)
• BK-05 - ZM139 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-06 - ZM140 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-07 - ZM141 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-08 - ZM142 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-09 - ZM143 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-10 - ZM144 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-11 - ZM145 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-12 - ZM146 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-13 - ZM147 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-14 - ZM148 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-15 - ZM149 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-16 - ZM150 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-17 - ZM151 - (RAF Marham)
BK-18 - ZM152 - (RAF Marham) Lost.
• BK-19 - ZM153 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-20 - ZM154 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-21 - ZM155 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-22 - ZM156 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-23 - ZM157 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-24 - ZM158 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-25 - ZM159 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-26 - ZM160 - (RAF Marham)
• BK-27 - ZM161 - (RAF Marham)
One aircraft was lost when deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth (ZM152).
Initial operational capability
Initial operational capability (IOC) for the UK F-35B Lightning was declared on 10th January 2019 for land-based operations and has been cleared to operate from the aircraft carriers in late 2020. By 2023, the UK will have forty eight F-35B aircraft, with at least twenty four aircraft available for front-line service on the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier.
In the Strategic Defence and Security Review which was released in March 2021, it stated that the RAF F-35B Lightning force size will be increased beyond the 48 aircraft that have already been ordered. More UK weapons will be integrated into the aircraft and investment will ensure that its software and capability are updated.